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Russia: anchoring in troubled seas

01 September 2002

The year following 11 September witnessed Russian movement on a wide front. Agreement was reached with the United States on the reduction of strategic nuclear warheads. Russia joined a new NATO-Russia Council. In Russia’s backyard, US and European forces have been deployed in Central Asia, and the United States has launched a programme to develop Georgia’s armed forces. These changes seem to mark a shift in Russian policy away from a previous pursuit of ‘multipolarity’, in which it was assumed that Russia was one of the world’s ‘poles’, towards one that seeks its inclusion in the Euro-Atlantic ‘pole’. In the flurry, however, the origins of Russian shifts have been obscured. It is worth recalling that they reside not so much in September 2001 as in 1999. 11 September was an accelerator, not a turning point.<br />For Russia, the ‘moment of truth’ occurred in 1999. Internally, Russia’s economy was recovering from the financial collapse of August 1998. Armed Chechen groups had invaded Dagestan, raising the prospect of the further collapse of the North Caucasus. Externally, Operation Allied Force confirmed Russia’s worst fears about NATO, by undermining the UN, sidelining the OSCE and using force in the name of the controversial concept of ‘limited sovereignty’. Renewed conflict in Chechnya left Russia isolated in Europe. A new US administration looked on Russia not so much as a partner as a problem to be a managed. Upon becoming President, therefore, Vladimir Putin inherited a buffeted state that was weak internally and isolated externally.<br />Putin drew several conclusions from this panoply of failure. First, the rules of the international game created during the Cold War were disappearing, and new ones were being written without Russia’s involvement. Second, the pursuit of multipolarity by Yevgeny Primakov had left Russia in a no-man’s land with little influence over international developments. Putin established as his primary task the revitalisation of the Russian state, an objective requiring a predictable and friendly international environment. Putin intuitively perceived the dangerous link between internal and external trends: Russia’s vicious circle of domestic weakness and foreign isolation had to be broken.<br />In foreign policy, Putin launched what might be called a strategy of anchoring. Russia’s President concluded that, in this troubled sea of world affairs and at the start of the twenty-first century, Russia could not sail alone. In fact, far from sailing at all, Russia had best take shelter. In Putin’s view, the only port available lay within the Euro-Atlantic community. In 2000-01, changes in policy were hesitant but positive. Full relations were restored with NATO in February 2000. Welcoming feelers were put out to the new US administration. Officially, Russia still rejected further NATO enlargement and protested against national missile defence. In private, however, the noises were different, more subdued, more accommodating. In the region of the former Soviet Union, Russia worked with France and the United States for a settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh question. Relations with the EU, and especially views on ESDP, improved greatly after the Paris summit of October 2000. <br />11 September offered Putin an opportunity to accelerate the anchoring process. Put more bluntly, the attacks required Russia to do so. Putin grasped indeed that neutrality in the new ‘war’ could only mean isolation and further rough sailing. <br />Russian differences with the West have not gone away; simply, Putin has decided that they are best resolved inside the tent. Externally, Russia may be more willing to accept the inevitable, whether on NATO enlargement or the stationing of ‘foreign’ troops in the former Soviet Union. However, Putin’s choice does not mean a less prickly Russia. Flexibility on Russia’s objective of restoring its control in Chechnya cannot be expected. The Russian military continues to place pressure on Georgia to clear its Pankisi Gorge of Chechen ‘terrorists.’ And, of course, Russian ties with Iran and Iraq have only deepened over the summer. <br />What does all this mean for the EU? The EU is an anchor in Putin’s policy – and an important one economically – but it is of minor importance in security terms. For now at least, from Moscow’s perspective, the EU adds little in itself to Russia’s security agenda except as insurance as a future option. All the while since 11 September, Russian eyes, half fascinated and half fearful with the dramatic US turn towards unilateralism, have been fixed on Washington: half fearful of the meaning of this surge of American power for Russia, but half fascinated also with the opportunities this opens for Russia to pursue more openly, even more unilaterally, its own interests.